in my opinion
Here’s a poem I’ve been meaning to write about.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the gems, one of the masterpieces of the latter 20th century. There’s not a word out of place. I’m sure there are more but (because I spend more time writing than reading) I don’t know about them (unless other readers tell me).
First, to the poem itself, then I’ll take a closer look at it. The poem is number 20 in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s book A Coney Island of the Mind, a book considered by many to be his finest.
rhyme in free verse
The expressive power of rhyme is something many free verse poets either don’t get, don’t want to get, or lack the talent to realize (in my opinion). But there are poets writing in this genre who do get it and Ferlinghetti is one of them. The poem above is rich in end-rhyme and internal rhyme, and the rhyming isn’t gratuitous.
It adds expressive power and underscores the meaning of the poem. It makes the poem more memorable. Here is the same poem. I’ve highlighted the end rhymes and internal rhymes that strike me as the most important. There’s no significance to the colors except that like rhymes are similarly colored.
The first thing to know about good rhyme is that it doesn’t have to end-rhyme – especially in free verse. Metrical poetry can use internal rhyme as well, but the advantage that free verse offers is the freedom of its line lengths. The freedom allows a poet like Ferlinghetti to place the rhyme exactly where he wants them.
The words among and gum are assonant rhymes, meaning that only the vowel sounds rhyme.
In a metrical poem, if Ferlinghetti had wanted to keep these rhymes as end rhymes, he probably would have had to drop some syllables. And that brings to mind another little secret (which I’ll let you in on). This “free verse” poem has a metrical poem hidden inside it.
If I move some lines around, watch what happens. Watch this:
1.) The pen|nycan|dystore| beyond |the El
is where | I first fell |in love |with un|real|ity
Jelly|beans glowed |in the se|mi-gloom
of that| septem|ber af|ternoon
5.) A cat |upon |the coun|ter moved |among
the li|corice sticks |and toot|sie rolls |and Oh |Boy Gum
Outside |the leaves |were fal|ling as |they died
A wind| had blown |away |the sun
A girl |ran in |Her hair |was rainy
10.) Her breasts |were breath|less in |the lit|tle room
Outside |the leaves |were fal|ling and |they cried
Too soon! |Too soon!
In terms of Iambic Rhythm, this poem is more regular than Keats! I read lines 1,5,7,10 & 11 as Iambic Pentameter. And I read lines 3,4, 8 & 9 as Iambic Tetrameter. Lines 2 & 6 are alexandrines (6 foot lines rather than 5 foot lines). The red represents a trochaic foot. The blue represents an anapestic variant foot and the green would be a feminine ending (just as with all my scansions). I chose to scan the final line as Iambic Dimeter. (This isn’t the only way to scan these lines but reflects what makes sense – to me.)
All in all, this poem could easily be a regular stanza in a larger traditional poem. Many, though not all, of Ferlinghetti’s poems in A Coney Island of the Mind are “subversively” metrical. And many younger poets would do well to learn by it. The techniques of traditional poetry are still available to all poets, even those who write free verse. They’re not exclusionary – though one might quibble as to whether Ferlinghetti’s poem is truly “free verse”.
What’s truly sweet about Ferlinghetti’s rhymes is how he withholds the rhyme suggested by gloom and noon to the very end of the poem.The other rhymes find their companions either within two or three lines, El & fell, that & cat, among, gum & sun, glowed, oh & blown; or the rhymes occur within the same lines, outside & died, breasts and breathless. The internal rhymes breasts and breathless are a masterful touch. (The alliteration underscores that moment when the boy sees something besides candy, better than candy, and like candy.)
Only gloom and noon remain unrhymed, but the ear has been primed.
And it’s when the poem closes that gloom and noon are rhymed. The effect is one of framing and also of completion. The rhymes subliminally reinforce the poem’s closure, especially the repeated soon. In a sense, Ferlinghetti has created a pattern that seeks closure both in subject matter and form.
This is what rhyme can add to a poem.
And this is what is missing in so much free verse – the subtle parallelism of rhyme, meter and meaning.
imagery and meaning
or the other reasons the poem is a masterpiece
The pennycandystore beyond the El
From the very first line we’re reminded of innocence and simplicity. What could be more benign than the pennycandystore? And what is the El? It probably refers to one of the elevated subway lines of New York City’s transit, but it could also refer to the “L” of Chicago, also called the “El” (by some Chicagoans). If I were the betting kind, I would put my money on New York. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers (just north of New York City) and so (one would expect) would have been familiar with New York City subway system as a child, (although this assumes that the poem as autobiographical.)
On the other hand, though the title of the book would seem to locate the poetry in New York City, some of the opening poems locate the speaker in California. Additionally, Ferlinghetti tells us that the book’s title is taken from Henry Miller’s Into the Night Life, making the title more an idea than a place. I’ve noticed that readers from Chicago assume that Ferlinghetti is describing the “L” in Chicago while readers from New York assume it’s New York.
To make matters worse, there has been more than one “El” in New York. There’s the Ninth Avenue “El”, there’s the “El” station which was demolished in 1940 (but which Ferlinghetti must have known), and then there’s the “El” of Jamaica Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens. To me, the demolished El station seems a likely candidate; but it doesn’t matter. If Ferlinghetti wanted us to know, he could tell us. As of writing this, he’s still around.
is where I first
fell in love
What does the poem mean by unreality? The poem gives us some clues:
Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved among
the licorice sticks
and tootsie rolls
and Oh Boy Gum
Was it the jellybeans glowing in the semi-gloom? But there’s little else “unreal” in the description. Here’s how I read it: The poet is a boy when he walks into the pennycandystore. Reality, to him, are the glowing jellybeans, the licorice sticks, the tootsie rolls and the Oh Boy Gum. The jellybeans glow, like beacons. But another kind of reality (and unreality to the boy) begins to swirl around him. It’s in the semi-gloom of that septemeber afternoon. It’s the cat upon the counter, moving like a huntress through the boy’s “reality”, through the beckoning jellybeans, licorice sticks and “Oh Boy Gum”. Oh Boy… Ferlinghetti’s choice of candy is no mistake. This is candy for a boy. This the stuff that makes a boy say, oh boy…
Outside the leaves were falling as they died
A wind had blown away the sun
But unreality will not be delayed; and there is more dying than just the leaves. The boy’s reality, his pennycandystore, is also dying. The sun, and all that it has represented to the boy, is being blown away by a wind – and that wind is more than just a literal wind. Something else is about to dissolve the boy’s reality – and unreality:
A girl ran in
Her hair was rainy
Her breasts were breathless in the little room
Need I say more? Ferlinghetti says it best, and I can’t think of any boy who hasn’t had that same experience, that same breath-stopping, heart stopping, unreal instance when we see “a girl” for the first time. She has run in and she carries, into the little room, all of the unreality the boy had, until this moment, been unaware of. Her hair, the rain that sheds the leaves and has blown away the sun, and her breasts. And what is breathless in the little room? Her breasts? Him? The little room? Where are the jellybeans? – the licorice, tootsie rolls or “Oh Boy” gun? They are gone, like so much else. Gone.
Outside the leaves were falling
and they cried
Too soon! Too soon!
The poem moves us out of the pennycandystore. There’s no need to tell more. Where a lesser poet might have remained inside the store, telling us more than needs description, Ferlinghetti’s touch is masterful – genius. We know. The boy is gone, in love with an unreality, the sudden unfathomable and breathlessly indefinable beauty of a girl. The pennycandystore, with all its little childish realties, is gone. Outside, the falling leaves cry: Too soon! Too soon!
From Ferlinghetti’s Populist Manifesto Number 1
Where are Whitman’s wild children,
where the great voices speaking out
with a sense of sweetness and sublimity,
where the great new vision,
the great world-view,
the high prophetic song
of the immense earth
and all that sings in it
And our relations to it -
to the street of the world once more
And open your minds & eyes
with the old visual delight…